James P's Commentary

Posted March 29, 2006 (user submitted)

Meriden Mall, later re-named Meriden Hub was a small, 250,000 sf one-level enclosed mall, built as part of a urban renewal project in an effort to revitalize the downtown of the small city of Meriden, Connecticut. Nothing archtiecturally wonderfull to write home about, the mall was a brown brick and brown painted steel box structure with a fairly large surface parking area on its west and south sides, bounded by State Street, Center Stree and Pratt Streets. The interior was standard mall hallway, with drop acoustical ceiling tiles, some anemic skylights in the form of a few clerestories and from what I can remember, a smattering of pathetic square planters and a single-spray jet fountain. Im sure the renderings of the mall when it was being designed seemed nice...for the late 1960's. The Meriden Mall was also located across from the city's train and bus station with daily departures of Amtrak to NYC or to Hartford and points north. The mall itself was somewhat at the edge of the downtown, which was a block or so west of the train tracks along Colony Avenue and West Main Street. These streets still have some wonderful buildings of serious archtitectural character and merit, and have had many plans done on them over the years to revitalize and rehab. Most still sit vacant.

First some base data...Meriden's population is about 65,000 people and is located in the geographical center of Connecticut, about halfway between Hartford and New Haven, and was once a world-renowned center for fine silver manufacturing. Three major freeways converge there, I-91, I-691 and the Wilbur Cross Parkway merge in a huge interchange on the east side of the town. It has a strong working/middle class base with a number of diverse ethnic groups. There city itself is somewhat run-down, but has a nice collection of stately and beautiful structures and homes from the late 19th and early 20th century, that reflect the long ago wealth of its commerce and industry.

In the late 1960's, like many communities, the local leaders were looking at the decline and run-down state of downtown area and decided to clear a five acre site for what they hoped would become a new retail draw in the center of the city. The odd thing about the Meriden Mall was that it was located in a low valley-like site that required the piping underground of a small stream, then known as Harbor Brook. This might have been fine, were it not for the occassional times that the uncovered section nearby would flood and back up into this neighborhood and place the mall and its parking area under several feet of water! This interesting item was only one in a series of relatively unfortunate circumstances that doomed this mall almost from its beginning.

Meriden Mall began its life in September 1970, and opened with a Stop & Shop supermarket, a W.T.Grant anchor store (I think this was a rather large store at 70k s.f.) a Walgreen's, Farm Shop restaurant and several other stores that I barely remember, being that I was only six years old when the mall opened. I had many extended family members who lived in Meriden, and so for many years when my parents and I would visit family, we would ocassionally go downtown to have something to eat there, or do some shopping at Grant's. Later in the mid 1970's, the State of Connecticut opened an 'Off-track Betting' parlor (also known as an OTB) there as well. Having certain family members who frequented this establishment, I would ocassionally accompany them to this interesting 'service retailer' and amuse myself in the other stores and shops, while they (mostly) lost their money to the State and assorted other gaming entities. (I was only ten or eleven then, but I remember the OTB being a very popular place, almost appearing as though it was the real 'anchor' at this mall! And some of the poeple who hung around there be charatable...real characters!)

The challenges that began to make Meriden Mall a relic almost immdeiately were fast and furious. First, the downtown area was not convenient to the nearby I-691 highway exits (then known as Ct. Route 66). This would prove to be its first drawback. Then almost a year or so after Meriden Mall opened, another developer came along and built the much larger, two-level Meriden Square Mall (now known as Westfield Meriden Mall) right off the highway at the Lewis Avenue exit, just west of the downtown area. Meriden Square was a half a million s.f. and opened in the fall of 1971, with a full-line branch of Hartford's prestigious G.Fox & Co. and a huge J.C. Penney store. The opening of Meriden Square, more than any other factor, pretty much took all the thunder out of the potential draw of much smaller and poorly located Meriden Mall.

Throughout the 1970's the mall struggled, with the decline of the manufacturing base in the city, the nearby location of the troubled Mills public housing project, and the overwhelming competition with Meriden Square. In addition, there was the bankruptcy and closure of the W.T.Grant store. Their space was soon replaced by the relocation of the Barker's discount dept. store from their exisitng site out the 'old' Route 66 east of the city. This was a strange development, since you rarely ever saw a discount operation abandon their suburban location for a downtown site. Interesting as that was, I think that location only lasted a few years, and then Barker's also went out of business somewhere around 1983 or '84.

With Meriden Square "Mall" nearby, and Meriden "Mall" downtown, it was agreed that there was too much confusion as to what mall you meant when you said you were going to Meriden 'mall'. (Most people I know meant that mean you were going to Meriden Square, since there wasnt much you wanted in Meriden Mall anyway.) With this in mind, the owners renamed the mall 'Meriden Hub' somewhere around 1980, with the name burnishing at least a different perpsective on the place, even if it meant nothing positive. This mall was not revitalizing downtown at all, and more than a few storefronts became even more vacant thorughout this period.

The slow decline continued with Barker's departure and the loss of several of the better quality convenience draws like the Walgreens, the restaurants and eventually the OTB. In the early 1990's the Stop & Shop chain built a huge new in-town store up the hill from downtown, and relocated there sometime around 1991. Realizing that its future was most likely never going to be retail, the local Canberra Industries Company, a maker of (I believe) sensitive testing equipment, moved into a large amount of the mall space in the late 80's and gave the downtown area a much needed boost of employment. About the time that Canberra moved in, Meriden Square was expanded to include a new Sears store, an expanded G.Fox (renamed Filene's in 1993, and soon to be-branded as Macy's) about 50 new shops and a rather large food court. That mall was enlarged even further by its new owners, the Westfield Company of Australia, in the late 1990's with a new wing for a short-lived branch of Lord & Taylor and more shops. (Lord & Taylor lasted about two years....a real tragedy of bad retail location and poor is now a Dick's Sporting Goods and a Best Buy)

The Meriden Hub's reincarnated life as an employment center proved to be short-lived with two bad incidences of flooding that happened during the 1990's. Canberra Industries couldn't see staying there, having its operations disrupted by such potential disasters, and departed the Meriden Hub sometime around 2000. In the fall of 2005, the city took over the mall through emminent domain, and is plannning to demolish the entire property, uncover Harbor Brook and land-bank the site for a potential park that can act as a flood control area and edge it with a new urban-style neighborhod development. Another plan called City Center by a local developer has been proposed for the site as well, but nothing has been announced on this project for a while.

I haven't been back to Meriden in a while, since my family moved away years ago. I saw the mall from the outside about three years ago, late one night, dark and mostly boarded up with grafitti all around its exterior. I am not sure when the mall officially 'died', since it did have some local service tenants there up until the last big 'flood' event. I'm sure it is now a full scale ruin, and with the State of Connecticut allocating money to the city for its demolition, I am sure its time is up soon. There is really no lesson to this property. It just seemed at the time that two malls in this town would do fine, each with their own repsective tenants and appeal. You can imagine that in 1970, no one forsaw the decline of Meriden's manufacturing base, its demographic changes or the volatility that would affect the retail industry that has lasted for several decades. It was just the wrong idea, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. It's a retail story that can be told time and again, in many places similar to Meriden. For my family and myself, it will hold an interesting place in memory and as a part of our past, especially the OTB parlor stories!

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